Session Report: Circular Economy - How to trigger and maintain behavioural change in the plastics value chain?
This high-level roundtable, which took place on May 23, featured Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, Kestutis Sadauskas, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth at DG ENV, as well as representatives of Coca Cola, Ecoalf and Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC. The panelists discussed a variety of topics including the Commission's Plastics Strategy, the ways in which plastic pollution can be tackled, the challenges facing the industry and the role of the consumers in achieving sustainable management of plastic waste.
Below you will find a summary of the debate, prepared by Dods.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, in charge of Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, said plastics are an essential element of the economy and of a decarbonised economy as well. They have to follow the circular economy logic. The production and reproduction of plastics needs to be sustainable and circular. This way of thinking is more realistic; just banning is not a solution. The challenge today is that plastics are not recycled and disposed of correctly. Today 30% of plastic waste generated in Europe is recycled. According to estimates, we waste 95% of plastic packaging's material value – this is translated to 70-105 billion annually, he explained. This simply cannot continue. On top of that there are issues with the leakage of plastics into the environment, which creates serious environment concerns. Since 2015, the Commission has been working on the actions included in the Action Plan for the Circular Economy, he noted. To reach the main objectives of the plan and based on the principles outlined, they developed the Plastics Strategy. The purpose is to help the industry to be sustainable and competitive in the world. To make the Strategy become reality they need to face some challenges, though: there is a need to create a market for recycled plastics and to mobilise the industry. In the context of the latter, Vice-President Katainen strongly recommended the industry to submit voluntary pledges by June 30. They will then work closely on the next steps. He also mentioned the importance of the role of the regional authorities in waste management. Consumers also play a very important role, he added, explaining that sorting and collection starts at consumers' houses. At the same time, citizens should be aware of the impact of waste on the environment. Consumers should also understand that waste is not just waste but it is a resource if it is properly disposed. Further, he stressed the importance of the industry and its potential in the future. Plastics Strategy aims to create a new market for recyclers. EU single market can help to deal with waste, the Vice-President concluded.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, Journalist, Euranet Plus News Agency, wondered what the Vice-President thought about plastic waste overseas from an economic perspective.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, welcomed China's ban of waste imports, as it helps Europe to see how to deal with our own waste. It was nonsense to send raw material to China. He believes that the circular economy will play a crucial role in the future. We can keep added value here and also create more added value by taking the right steps and changing our behaviour.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, wondered how the Commission could incentivise all this – through research, innovation?
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, said that it could do it through financial innovations, by creating a regulatory environment and a single market for waste. He believes that the market will solve most of the problems. Finally, the Commission needs to encourage and empower consumers. In this context, he mentioned that the following Monday (May 28) it will launch a proposal on certain single used plastic products, where the aim is to empower consumers and prepare them to make responsible choices.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked if the Vice-President saw innovation as an easier way to deal with plastics or would changing consumer behaviour be better.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, noted that consumers are the key. He said the Commission believes in consumers and that is why it cannot see circular economy from top down perspective only. It is a powerful tool that can help consumers. Of course, they need innovations in material technology, replacing oil base plastics in some cases. Innovation is also empowering consumers.
Marisa Selfa, General Manager, Ecoalf, talked about plastics in the ocean, which they are passionate about. She emphasised the issue of plastic bags. She mentioned the environmental impact that plastics in the oceans have and how plastic ends up in the fish we eat. All this encouraged them to work on these issues and also to inspire the plastics industry, which is the second most contaminated industry in the world. She said that they basically give a second life to products. They have two projects in Thailand where they collect the waste in the ocean and then recycle it. They want to be a part of the change, she concluded.
Kestutis Sadauskas, European Commission, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth, emphasised the line made by Vice-President Katainen that circular economy is one of the focuses of this Commission. Whatever they do in this regard, they want to make sure also to make a business case for it. Circular economy is a receipt for competitiveness. Finally, he paraphrased Abraham Lincoln that both circular economy and the Plastics Strategy are "of business, by business and for business".
Michael Laurier, Group CEO, Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC, said that he deals with plastic pollution – plastics that escape recycling, plastics that can still be reused. They have behind almost three decades of research, proving recyclability, biodegradation on land and in oceans. He believed this is not just EU problem, but a global problem. He believed that the system of pre-treating of plastics is important – so, if it ends up in the environment it will degrade. This is their technology that they use around the world in 11 countries. They tackle microplastic pollution in particular.
Ulrike Sapiro, Sustainability Director Europe Middle East and Africa, Coca-Cola, explained that they are the world's largest beverage producer. They have around 300 brands. It is their aim to grow the business responsibly in the future. The people and the planet matter, she stated. She noted that indeed the world is facing a plastic waste challenge. However, they have a role in this and they are working on it. They also have a worldwide strategy on board to collect the material back, make them recyclable and engage consumers and other partners to work together on recycling and collection solutions. Regarding the issue of engaging consumers, she commented that they should use the power of their brands to engage the consumers. She shared a video – a short example of their strategy, which, in her words, makes "recycling sexy".
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked what the reasons are to drive consumer change.
Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola, said that for the past 10 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the consumer research conducted around products. This has in tern increased the importance and value in brand representation. These kinds of initiatives are now looking to use engagement to increase their brand representation in an active way.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, wondered if the Commission is looking to drive the change through the whole value chain when dealing with regulatory processes.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, replied that their aim is to create a single market, with one standard for plastics everywhere to help recycle plastics waste. The best way to use regulatory power is to create a level playing field and to create a market.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Ms Selfa if they buy the "sexy image" of helping the environment and what she saw as a driving change towards the circular economy.
Marisa Selfa, General Manager, Ecoalf, replied that the level of education, research and development, as well as investment are main elements. Brands are interested in solving the issues, but there is no real action behind it.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Mr Laurier how the mindset could be changed and the educational process improved.
Michael Laurier, Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC, said that they have education as part of the process of change while working with recycling companies and governments, looking for alternatives etc. They need effective initiatives that are affordable and can be done now. This is a global issue and the global waste management system is something that is not so difficult to educate on, but it is a matter of visibility.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked the Commission representative about the changes in the supply chain.
Kestutis Sadauskas, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth at DG ENV, replied that it may not happen as quickly as the Commission would like to have it. He believes that there already are some strong policies related to that, such as energy and climate policy – Paris Agreement, energy efficiency etc. All this helps to improve expenditure and brings profits. Recycling materials could help us advance and make us more competitive (if you have more resources, you can negotiate the price and become more competitive). We also need to build the market for those materials and build the trust among the consumers, he concluded.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked the Vice-President of the Commission if the amounts of plastic waste in the ocean can be harvested?
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, replied that they have to try to clean the oceans as much as possible. In addition, they need to limit or stop the littering in the oceans. The Commission is about to introduce special policies, which will limit the use of certain items, thus contributing towards cleaning the oceans. Further, Vice-President Katainen spread the message to the private sector – if it wants to change the market the Commission could help it do this right. Stakeholders' contribution is important.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Ms Sapiro if Coca Cola can influence the market easily.
Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola, agreed. She said that size can sometimes be a challenge. However, there are relatively simple principles that should be followed: right regulation and application of packaging of products and creation and maintenance of the value of the materials used in packaging. She believed that the main drivers to change would be: fostering recycling, commercially viable and competitive products.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Mr Laurier about the difference between markets.
Michael Laurier, Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC, explained that there is a difference between markets. He said in India they have huge problems with recycling and plastic bags. There are also different price structures. He believed that the main principles should be collect, recycle and reuse. It is not impossible to clean the oceans.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked if Europe can become a global market. What role can we play on the plastics market?
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, responded that Europe can be a leader in this. He found the plastic market a great opportunity, which can help them tackle the plastic waste. The EU is a good driving vehicle to the changes.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, wondered how do they measure changes, who do they benchmark etc.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, said that companies and member states are working hard on it. He mentioned the forward-going member states - Germany, France, Finland etc. He said that there is plenty of plastic, which can and could be recycled and the creation of a new market could contribute to this.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked what the challenges are and who is standing on the way to overcome those challenges.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, responded that nobody. The biggest challenge of the Commission is to get the regulation right. They do not want to rush after the easiest solution. That is why they need to collect the facts from various stakeholders. The creation of a new market is quite challenging, he added.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, questioned if the plastics agenda can be driven by the cities and not the individual member states.
Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President of the European Commission, replied that the cities can do a lot, but they need to create the market for this. They will be in charge of collecting and trading the waste. They indeed play an important role.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked the representative of Coca Cola if big brands are trusted more in this area.
Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola, replied that yes. The reality is that the consumers and everyone can reach their message. She added that governments, brands, stakeholders and media play an important role. Brands have the voice that can be heard. In terms of environmental messages, sustainability and social values, they reach more consumers with how and what to use.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked the DG ENV Director what the key success of the action plan towards the circular economy is.
Kestutis Sadauskas, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth, responded that it is the content itself. Their aim is not to create a restrictive environment. Businesses are the ones that innovate. Consumers probably want to do something and are getting more interested in sustainability, but what happens is that they are losing trust due to cheating. In this context, he mentioned the diesel scandal, which is something that should not be repeated. We also need the right standard, proper regulation, which will empower the consumers, guide the business, he said. Certification of businesses would be also good in this context.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, wondered who the champion is here. Who is the ambassador?
Kestutis Sadauskas, European Commission, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth, said that everyone – brands, consumers and public administrations. A former member of the European Parliament was interested in public procurement and public contracts. He also mentioned the recycling of furniture performed by disadvantaged people in Wales.
Marisa Selfa, General Manager, Ecoalf, replied that this is the way. Governments should be motivating the businesses. Incentivising is the way, she believes. A representative of steel industry said that they are interested in the way information on recycling is communicated to the public. Sorting is not recycling, he stated. Recycling is changing the material to what has been and that can be used again as it was the first time. He believed that the public is being misinformed.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, wondered if it is fair to try to have the consumer understand the whole process or is it better to introduce responsibility at first. A representative of steel industry said that they have to do both. If you do just one, they do not get the whole picture. We need to aim at having recyclable materials that can be the same as they were. We also need to increase awareness among the consumers. He further asked the Commission about product quality.
Kestutis Sadauskas, European Commission, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth, replied on the definition of recycling. He noted that just the day before the Council endorsed the waste legislation that clarifies that. No misleading information on recycling anymore, he said. They fixed the waste part, but they did not go into single products yet. They have to see how to make them all sustainable.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked representative of Coca Cola if they are working through the whole value chain. Are they monitoring the whole supply chain?
Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola, responded that auditing is at the end of the supply chain. Important are the plans for action and cooperation and communication with others. Auditing is just one part of the procedure.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Ms Selfa if she agreed more with the idea that materials should biodegrade or would she prefer that the suppliers deal more with harvesting waste.
Marisa Selfa, General Manager, Ecoalf, replied that it should be both perspectives.
Member of the audience referred to Vice-President Katainen's words that there are 28 different markets of PET bottles across Europe. Where can this be addressed? Further, he wondered what Ecoalf would have to do to grow and scale up the business also in Europe, like they did in Thailand.
Marisa Selfa, General Manager, Ecoalf, replied that they have projects to clean the Mediterranean. They also have sponsors in Europe.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked the Commission about the costs of the transportation of waste elsewhere.
Kestutis Sadauskas, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth, replied that they have to look at the societal cost and the impact. He said that there is no internal real market yet. Further, he said that with the new legislation they want to increase the recycling targets and this is a signal to businesses that there are more secondary materials entering the market. They also work on separate collection obligations. They also need to do something with waste shipments. The latter should be reviewed.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Mr Laurier if they send the signalling on the market about raw materials.
Michael Laurier, Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC, replied that they can ensure the signalling everywhere. One has to be responsive to it, he added.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Ms Sapiro how sophisticated footprint management is for plastics.
Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola, noted that from their perspective it is quite sophisticated. They produce locally, which means that they do not have long transport distances. She believed that there is a huge potential to create a European market, which would help to collect the materials and get them into recycling streams.
A representative of Impact Revolution stated that the statistics on the amount of plastic waste is alarming. She wondered if there is a possibility also to take further measures to reduce this waste increase in the future.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked what her opinion would be.
A representative of Impact Revolution believed that awareness is a very important step. She welcomed the transition, but remarked that they need more action at the global level.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked also about the steps that should be taken in the future?
Michael Laurier, Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC, noted that large amounts of plastic are in oceans. How to encourage citizens to do more? For example, they do it through videos. Now, it is the time to encourage the poorer countries. In those areas we can encourage them, but there is also a question of survival and the protection of food by packaging. In the very first instant, they should be passionate about the technology, which means oxidation of plastics. You are putting value back to nature with this, he explained. It is a form of organic recycling which is beyond the traditional recycling. This should be the first step.
Kestutis Sadauskas, European Commission, Director in charge of Circular Economy and Green Growth, added that because they think they are better, it should not stop them from being responsible. There is huge interest. He believed that it is also a major business opportunity. He called everyone to use this opportunity and profit from that.
Brian Maguire, Moderator, asked Ms Sapiro to summarise the discussion in three key concepts to advance the plastics agenda in the circular economy.
Ulrike Sapiro, Coca-Cola - innovation, collaboration and value creation.